Can the civil courts resolve a lawsuit brought by one minister against another minister alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress? That was the difficult question before a Louisiana state appeals court.
In July of 1986, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart allegedly accused another minister, Marvin Gorman, of committing immoral acts with several women over a period of years. On July, 16, 1986, Gorman resigned his church, and in August he was formally dismissed as minister by his denomination. Despite the dismissal of Gorman as a minister by both his local church and denomination, Swaggart and other defendants allegedly continued to make statements casting doubt on the moral character of Gorman, and these statements were circulated to pastors and churches of other denominations as well as to the public at large.
Gorman sued Swaggart and a number of other defendants, charging them with defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Swaggart responded by arguing that the civil courts had no power to resolve internal church disputes. A trial court agreed with Swaggart, and then Gorman appealed the case to a state appeals court.
The appeals court ruled that the trial court had erred in dismissing the lawsuit. It acknowledged that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom forbids the civil courts from interfering "in matters of religious discipline, faith, or custom, as well as to the appointment and removal of ministers." However, it noted that "there are limits to this prohibition, and in those cases where religious doctrine is not involved … civil courts retain the power to resolve disputes."
This was just such a case, the court concluded, since "Gorman clearly is not disputing his dismissal as a minister. How could he, when his voluntary resignation predated his formal dismissal?" But eve more important, observed the court, was the fact that "Gorman's suit alleged defamatory acts which occurred outside" his church and denomination after he had been formally dismissed as a minister. "Even were we to find that the defendants' post-dismissal statements were legitimately part of the internal church discipline, there is a serious question as to whether the first amendment's protection would extend to those statements allegedly made to the press, the general public, and pastors of other denominations."
The court concluded that the statements made to persons outside of Gorman's church and denomination took the case beyond the scope of an internal religious matter: "This court may be powerless to interpret the religious doctrine which defendants claim compelled them to publicize their accusations to other members of their church, however, this does not mean they can make those accusations outside their church and not face the legal consequences." The court rejected the claim that Swaggart and the other defendants were entitled to publicize statements regarding Gorman to the "church at large" (referring to all Christians of whatever persuasion).
This case demonstrates the caution that should be employed when disseminating the causes of disciplinary action. If disciplinary action is taken against a minister or church member, extreme care must be taken not only in the content of any explanatory statements, but also in the audience to whom such statements are made. Clearly, statements to persons outside the church or denomination involved must be avoided, and protections should be used even in disseminating information to these restricted audiences to insure that the information is not circulated beyond those with a legitimate right to know.
Gorman v. Swaggart, 524 So.2d 915 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1988)